After years of stoking and redirecting white working class resentment, the Republican leadership risks being destroyed by a monster of its own creation.
As a leftist I can’t help but get a certain amount of schadenfreude from watching the Republican Party tear itself apart even while, as a radical, I have few illusions about the Democrats. Since the Iowa caucuses the Republican establishment (such as it is) has pinned its hopes on Marco Rubio, a vacuous stuffed suit whose ambition is matched only by his incompetence. Having effectively blown it in New Hampshire, his campaign has become a losing struggle to remain relevant. The most viable opponent of Trump to emerge is Ted Cruz, a dead eyed slug squeezed into a business suit still trading on an increasingly marginalized homophobia. To the GOP hierarchy however, the prospect of a Cruz nomination is almost as scary as a Trump nomination. in their desperation, they’ve rolled out Mitt Romney, a two time loser who only got the nomination in 2012 by default because his opponents were vainglorious idiots and crude political hacks, in a desperate effort to rally the demoralized anti-Trump elements within the GOP. He stands at his podium, looking very much like a man who would still like to be president, saying things about Trump that are true (Trump is a con man playing voters for suckers) but it doesn’t matter; he lacks all credibility with the kinds of voters shaking this thing up this go around. Trump supporters aren’t going to listen to Romney, and rightly so. He’s a man of notoriously flexible principles who made his bones on Wall Street offshoring jobs and shuttering factories. He might as well be the avatar for everything that pisses Trump supporters off about the political order.
What we are seeing are the contradictions within the GOP coming to the fore. The Republican Party has a base of white working class and downwardly mobile people, but is run by and for wealthy business interests. The GOP has been very successful at papering over this contradiction with dog whistle racism, militarism and culture wars. Ultimately though working class republicans want higher wages, secure employment, and a social safety net. The corporate interests that control the party don’t want any of those things, since they would lower their return on capital. Eventually there has to be a reckoning. Frankly it’s amazing that the Republican party hasn’t torn itself apart already.
Nowhere is this contradiction sharper than on immigration. Everyone plays stupid about why nothing gets done on this issue when the answer is staring them in the face; business interests like the current immigration regime just fine as is. Why wouldn’t they? They have an undocumented workforce millions strong that they can pay pennies and treat like shit. And if undocumented workers get uppity and demand better pay, try to unionize or even just try to get their bosses to stop stealing their wages, guess what sword of Damocles is hanging right above their head? Deportation back to a corruption ridden country where their ability to make a living has been sapped by the same kind of “free trade” agreements that have so harmed workers here in the states. It’s why these business interests raise a horrified cry of “amnesty” when the idea granting undocumenteds a legal status comes up; that would undermine the vulnerability of this workforce. On the other hand, no one (until Trump) has seriously advocated mass deportations of the undocumented since they don’t actually want to get rid of this profitably exploitable workforce, although deportation happen with sufficient regularity to be a real enough threat to discipline potential troublemakers.
The truth is that the best thing for the working class would be to grant the undocumented a legal status so that they fight wage theft, demand better pay and conditions, or struggle for union recognition, without looking over their shoulder for the INS every time they piss off their boss. Immigrant workers don’t like being treated so shabbily, and giving them the space to push back against employers would do a lot more to help wages than walls or deportations. That is to say the only way for the white working class to lesson its exploitation is to lessen the exploitation of the undocumented. But working people don’t hear this argument because the capitalist media can’t make it. If you follow the logic of this line of reasoning to its conclusion you end up at working class solidarity across ethnic and national lines, something far more threatening to the ruling class than even the prospect of a Trump presidency.
Meanwhile the arguments American workers do hear are “immigrants are taking your jobs and ruining the country” from the right and “Don’t be racist!” from liberals. The liberal argument has the merit of being simultaneously condescending and missing the point. If you want to lessen racial resentments you have to ameliorate the conditions that give rise to them, which in this case is the pitting of workers against each other instead of against the bosses. In my admittedly anecdotal experience working class whites aren’t bitter when their doctor is Indian or their lawyer is Jewish because they’re not in competition with them. But when they see a line of Mexican day laborers at Home Depot even the most enlightened can’t help but feel a little trepidation. Even if a white worker wasn’t a contractor by trade it didn’t used to be uncommon for him to pick up a little extra work doing that kind of thing on the side. When they raise what they feel to be legitimate concerns about employment security (concerns which can be but aren’t necessarily racialized) they are met with patronizing moralism, or even classist derision, instead of solidarity against the employers that exploit us all. Is it any wonder that they would be vulnerable to a charismatic buffoon like Trump that rails against both Immigrants and “political correctness?”
Immigration is just the most explosive and portentous issue, but Trump’s bloviated blundering has broached other fissures within the GOP. Whether it’s free trade deals, the social safety net, or endless wars it turns out that working class republicans were never as committed to conservative free market principles as their leadership would have liked to think. Working class people weren’t voting for Republicans because of their policies so much as because fuck Democrats. The GOP has been very good at manipulating white working class voters through racism and nationalism, but at a certain point they are still working class. It was only a matter of time until their ire would expand out from limousine liberals to just any professional politician in a limousine. In a time when any kind of real class analysis is basically taboo in mainstream discussion it’s no surprise that this would express itself irrationally, and what could be more irrational than giving the ruling class the finger by voting for the most obnoxious member of that class? For decades the Republican party has been building a fire by stoking and misdirecting white working class discontent. Now that fire threatens to burn down their house.